Somehow it was inevitable that Ryan Giggs would celebrate his 900th appearance for Manchester United with an injury-time winner. United, specialists at late comebacks throughout the Welshman's 21-year career at Old Trafford, seemed to have paid for a failure to add to Paul Scholes's early opener when Grant Holt hit a late equaliser for Norwich City five minutes from time. But it was not late enough, and Giggs netted with a close-range shot in the second of three minutes of added time.
It got another of United's trademarks – their annual spring offensive – back on track. They have now taken 16 points from a possible 18 in the Premier League since back-to-back defeats by Blackburn Rovers and Newcastle United either side of the New Year, and yesterday's win ensured the gap at the top of the Premier League narrowed to two points again after Manchester City's victory over Blackburn on Saturday.
"It is a great result, and next week we have a really big game at White Hart Lane, which will be fantastic," Sir Alex Ferguson, the United manager, said. "Everyone knows we never give in. No matter who plays us, they know they will have to play right to the death. Given the career Ryan has had, to score the winning goal with the last kick of the game, I think he deserved that."
Ferguson hailed the two scorers as "the best players this club has ever had," which might provoke debate among those who remember George Best, Bobby Charlton or Duncan Edwards, but the combined age of Giggs, 38, and Scholes, 37, represents remarkable longevity at the top level.
They first started a Premier League match together in November 1994, and last scored in the same league match in a 4-0 win against Tottenham at White Hart Lane in 2007. "The two of them are a huge part of Manchester United's history," Paul Lambert, the Norwich manager, said. "They know how to win. From the outside looking in, two fabulous footballers, marvellous players."
It may be a source of concern for United that they had to rely on the old guard for victory once again. Danny Welbeck missed several chances to put the result beyond doubt and David De Gea, 21, was one of the few younger players on the United side to enhance his reputation, with memorable saves from Anthony Pilkington, Holt and Aaron Wilbraham.
"I have to say we were lucky," Ferguson admitted. "Although we made a host of chances – Danny Welbeck could have scored four – I thought Norwich were the better team. They had a lot of thrust about them, [were] determined and kept crossing that ball into the box. They deserved a point and it was a great goal they scored, but at that moment you saw us as Manchester United."
In the early stages it seemed United would stroll it as Norwich showed them far too much respect. After seven minutes Nani was under no pressure as he aimed a cross towards the heart of the Norwich penalty area, where Scholes was left unmarked to nod in from six yards. Only John Ruddy prevented United doubling the lead in the 16th minute, getting smartly down to his right to touch Welbeck's first-time shot around the post after Javier Hernandez had stolen unnoticed into the Norwich penalty area and cut the ball back.
Norwich had to improve and they did, and De Gea saved when Kyle Naughton's chip picked out the run of Pilkington, who met the ball on the half-volley from less than six yards. And De Gea did even better to clutch Holt's glancing header from Pilkington's cross.
Lambert made a change at the interval, putting on Wes Hoolahan to give United's midfield more to worry about, but Scholes and Michael Carrick were seldom hurried.
Norwich had to hang on as Welbeck went clear but his lob sailed wide while Giggs met Phil Jones' cross with a guided volley that beat Ruddy but not the crossbar.
Norwich, though, were still in it, and their breakthrough was assisted by Scholes' only error, his wayward square pass pounced on by Wilbraham, who let fly from 20 yards De Gea fingertipped it over, but the corner was only half-cleared, Adam Drury and Zak Whitbread returned the ball into the penalty area and Holt held off a defender to score with a fierce shot on the turn.
It was his tenth goal of the season and looked as if it would be enough to secure a point, especially when Welbeck somehow failed to make any contact with Giggs' cross when it seemed he must restore United's lead, then saw Ruddy block his low shot. But the warnings went unheeded, Norwich defended too deep, and Ashley Young crossed from the left for Giggs to prod home at the far post. "Obviously it was a great day for me personally," Giggs said. "900 games for United is a real honour and to score the winner – it doesn't get any better."
A great day for Giggs, but a kick in the teeth for Norwich? "A kick in another region," Lambert said. "But Man United have done it for 25 years since Sir Alex has been there. But that was a huge performance by us. We gave everything, we were running on empty. I couldn't fault our lads."
Rooney is ruled out for England
Wayne Rooney will not figure in England's friendly against the Netherlands on Wednesday, said Sir Alex Ferguson, who also ruled out the young midfielder Tom Cleverley. "They'll be out. Wayne has still not recovered from his throat infection, so hopefully we'll get him ready for next Sunday, when we have a big game at White Hart Lane," Ferguson said. The Aston Villa striker Darren Bent will also miss Wednesday's England match, after injuring his foot at Wigan on Saturday.
Norwich: RUDDY 7/10; NAUGHTON 7; WARD 6; WHITBREAD 6; DRURY 6; PILKINGTON 6; FOX 6; JOHNSON 5; SURMAN 7; JACKSON 6; HOLT 6
Manchester Utd: DE GEA 8; EVRA 5; FERDINAND 7; EVANS 6; JONES 5; GIGGS 7; SCHOLES 8 CARRICK 6; NANI 6; HERNANDEZ 4; WELBECK 7
Substitutes: Norwich City Hoolahan 7 (Jackson, h-t), Bennett 7 (Johnson, 63), Wilbraham 7 (Pilkington, 70).
Manchester United Young 7 (Hernandez, 63), Smalling (Giggs, 90).
Booked: Norwich Johnson. Manchester United Evans, Ferdinand.
Man of the match De Gea. Match rating 7/10.
Possession: Norwich 52% Manchester United 48%.
Attempts on target: Norwich 7 Manchester United 9.
Referee A Marriner (West Midlands) Attendance 26,811.